The following are the words that were spoken over me when I first entered the world. “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad (SAW) is His messenger.” Malika, they named me. It means “queen” in Arabic.
“Bulaong, if and when you get married, promise me that you will hyphenate your name. Ramiz is a noble, royal name. Ramiz is a name used by important and influential people in Africa, Middle East, and Asia. Ramiz means symbol of God; dignified one who’s indicated by sign. Ramiz has origins in Africa. It is a highly respectable name. Never forget that you are royalty, you’re noble, you’re a princess of rich stock. You will always be Bulaong Malika Ramiz. Love, Dad.”
My name has always been my most consistent connection with Islam. Well, that and my eating “restrictions.” I never prayed five times a day or wore hijab, but being raised Muslim has always been a part of my identity that I’ve claimed, critiqued, honored, and appreciated. In my growth as a social justice educator, I’ve become more and more critical of organized religion—seeing the value in it while also seeing how dangerously indoctrinating it can be. As I continue to learn more about myself, my relationship with religion wavers.
Born to a Catholic mother and a Muslim father, raised by my Muslim grandmother while attending Catholic school, I tried my best to both fit in and stand out during my formative years. I had confusing interactions and deeply transformative experiences.
I’ve fluctuated between feeling pride, frustration, fear, and joyous community around my Muslim identity. In elementary school I would lie and pretend I was Catholic like everyone else. I would sneak rosary beads under my uniform, tell stories about my baptism, pray the Hail Mary and the Our Father right along with my classmates. I was already different enough because I was a Black/Puerto Rican girl in this predominately White school, with kids I perceived to be wealthier than I. But then, Ramadan would come around, and I saw the strength, commitment, and spiritual journey my grandmother and my family’s community was undertaking, and I would feel overwhelmingly proud. I would skip lunch, announce that I was fasting, pray during recess. I no longer needed to fit in.
And then, in 7th grade September 11th happened. I’d never heard the term “terrorist” and didn’t know who Osama Bin Laden was. I can’t even recall if I had knowledge of the Middle East, at least not with any real historical understanding. My grandmother and I went to the Mosque one day following the attacks. Typically, I would put my hijab on in the car, walk into the Mosque and take if off once I got back in the car. But after September 11th happened, I started wearing my hijab all the way home, even making a few stops along the way. I was not afraid for people to see I was Muslim. I knew what I was hearing on TV and in school were lies, a narrow perspective, and not the whole truth. Those “terrorists” were not a reflection of my religion or my community.
So while I’m not currently a “practicing” Muslim in the traditional sense, I was raised Muslim and it’s a deep part of my identity. It instilled in me a sense of community, peace, strength, and resilience. I claim Islam the same way I claim being a woman, being Black, and being a Latina. Most of the awfulness I experience, typically on social media, are from those who lack historical perspective and empathy. I’ve noticed that the people feeding into violence and problematic rhetoric tend to have no real relationships with Muslims. Many have never even met a Muslim.
For those who wish to better understand the Muslim community, here’s what I can offer.
Not All Muslims Are Terrorists and Not All Terrorists Are Muslim
As a Black Muslim, if I were to do something, my actions would be deemed representative of my whole community or communities, regardless of if I was acting in the name of that community or not.
If my neighbor steals a loaf of bread, does that mean our entire neighborhood is made up of thieves and we should all be condemned for the actions of one person? NO.
You Cannot Tell Who Is Muslim and Who Is Not Simply By Appearance
Not all people who wear scarves or turbans on their head are Muslim. The Sikh community, which also wears turbans for religious reasons, has been targeted immensely with anti-Muslim violence. Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion, a monotheistic faith founded in the Punjab region of India about 500 years ago. Most of the world’s 25 million Sikhs live in India, but more than 500,000 make the U.S. their home. You can read more about them here, but the targeting of Sikhs is a direct result of generalizations, misinformation, and ignorance.
In fact, Muslims don’t always look like this.
In fact, we often look like this.
Muslims are diverse, complex, and individually very different just like Christians, Jews, and Atheists. Islam is a religion that spans hundreds of nations and is claimed by billions of people. This idea that we can ban an entire religious group from a nation is not simply an idea. It’s been done before with horrifying, disastrous results. We look back at those moments in history with shame and disgust.
The Entire Muslim Community Is Not Accountable for the Actions of Individual Muslims
Time and time again we see mass media and Internet trolls demanding that the entire Muslim community speak out against terrorist acts committed by other Muslims. Muslims don’t have annual or bimonthly meetings. There is not a newsletter we all subscribe to. We don’t even all speak the same language. If we are not going to hold all Christians to the same standard—that they should speak out when other Christians commit acts of terrorism in movie theaters, churches, and schools—then we shouldn’t expect that from anyone who identifies as Muslim.
Islamophobia Is Not Funny
We are at a very interesting crossroads at this time in our nation. What was once a chuckle has turned into deep concern. We have racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic men and women running for the highest office of this nation.
I urge you to think about what it truly means to be in a community. And if you haven’t read the Qur’an, understand much about Islam, or know a Muslim, I hope the next time you hear a racist, sexist, Islamophobic remark you think about me, my grandmother, and this story. I’m a member of your community and so are billions of others just like me. Let’s move forward from fear and discomfort to a place of courage—together.